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TECHNEWS · Tuesday, June 23, 2020


While the world is dealing with COVID-19 pressure, science and science-based start-up companies are under the lights: they can help in fighting the pandemic also pivoting, or die due to the global situation.

Science-based start-up companies, especially in the biotech area, draw the attention of the investors due to the possibility of disrupting the actual healthcare sector with new solutions, ranging from artificial intelligence, therapeutics, and diagnostics. Apart from the common challenges that include competitors, customers, raising capital, etc., they also have to deal with a highly regulated market that slows them down. 2020. brought another issue to fight with: COVID pandemic.

As a CEO and founder of a Biotech company in cancer diagnosis (OaCP IE LTD), I must admit that pandemic had an important impact on company development. It has been and it still is a real roller coaster. Learning from our experience, I would like to help biotech based startups with tips on how to fight with unexpected issues.

The story of OaCP IE ltd started back in 2017, after joining TVLP program where we got excellent comments and development advice from the highly profiled mentors in Silicon Valley, and after attending the prestigious accelerator program in Ireland, RebelBio. As the product for fast cancer diagnostics was already ready for the research purpose and patent-pending, we have started dealing with obtaining appropriate  EU certification (CE-IVD mark) and IP protection. The biotech area is highly regulated and it took some time before we could present the product to the market. In 2019, the certification was obtained and after entering the market, we reached almost $100k in revenues. Further accomplishments were expected to be obtained in the first months of 2020, but COVID shut it down. As we collaborated with an industrial partner from Wuhan that was locked down, we were not able to continue our activities.

The global pandemic caused the termination of all activities followed by the loss of all financial means. We moved from $100k to $0 in less than 3 seconds. We faced multiple problems: we did not have financial means, cancer-related activities have been reduced dramatically due to the focus on COVID patients, there was no possibility to raise important funds to sustain our business, and the mandatory deadline to maintain our patent alive was approaching. We questioned ourselves, what should we do? What are the actions that will help us stay alive? The biotech sector and remote services are not an easy match. Expensive certifications, validations, and time-consuming studies are reducing the possibility of pivoting.

We started working on COVID solutions and, luckily, in just a few days, we got supported by investors and our Chinese partner:
  1. The first investor decided to support us financially, just to make us able to overcome the crisis, and this action attracted two other private investors.
  2. Our partner helped us to deliver a diagnostic kit for COVID-19.

It looked like we were able to pivot. We took the following steps:
  • We took marketing actions to promote new products.
  • We started international promotion together with other partners abroad (in the EU area).
  • We registered new products (already certified) for diagnostic use in Italy.
  • We completed a company restructuring plan, to open a possibility for additional investment and a faster decision process.

Even though it seemed we were getting out of the crises, everyday regulation changes on the national and regional levels caused many limitations. For instance, an overnight change forced us to cancel and order of about $130k. However, we were seeing light in the darkness as our activities draw the attention of several venture capitalists which restarted financial operations. As Winston Churchill once said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” At the moment, we are dealing with a big tender at the governmental level for supplying our test.

We were not lucky, we have experienced sleepless nights because we were fighting with multiple problems. We could not pay salaries. We faced an enormous issue caused by the Chinese Government's decision to ban the export of all COVID related products, and to review every single company quality level before approving the export authorization. We dealt with the company restructuring losing some deals due to the prolonged time of the custom clearance operations., without the ability to sell and import goods. Finally, we faced some discouragement in our team. But we never surrender.

Our success or failure is still under the question mark. I can only be certain that pivoting in healthcare is one of the most difficult jobs a start-up company can do. It needs complete dedication, ability, and the possibility to face and deal with problems. Entrepreneurs should have at least 3 solutions at the same time. My journey from being a full-time scientist to becoming a CEO of a biotech company should motivate scientists like me, that want to become entrepreneurs, to deeply think about real challenges they will have to face with. Scientists are used to working in a pretty controlled environment where they can find an infinite number of variabilities that might affect their business. Entrepreneurs are facing an uncertain environment, and they are discovering problems during company life.

What I would suggest to future or current startups is not to limit the problem-solving process to the technology application, but to expand it to all of the parts of the business (from team to the market). Always try to find experienced people, like TVLP, that can advise you and make you aware of possible pitfalls and unexpected opportunities. Another important point is that you should always think about an additional application that makes possible for you to pivot the business in case of emergency, also by partnering with other science-based company. As Sir Winston Churchill said, “If you are going through the hell, keep going.”

Enrico di Oto, PhD

Enrico, a scientist and Life Science entrepreneur, is a TVLP Institute alumnus and the founder of OaCP, biotech company in cancer diagnosis, based in Italy. Konstantin Kolosov from Pixabay

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